The scent of the Lama

Vijay Deo, CMD of the company, at the factory in Kochi PHOTO: THULASI KAKKAT  

The air is fragrant with roses, lemongrass and gusts of saffron — an unexpected jigsaw of scents at Kochi’s business-like Industrial Estate in South Kalamassery. But then Vijay Deo of Holy Lama is used to turning heads with his palette of perfumes. Swivelling in his chair, set in a cheerfully-chaotic office, he says he makes a consistent impact with neighbours thanks to his company’s soaps. “People come to me and say, ‘Mr. Deo, when you take a bath, the whole neighbourhood stands outside your door’,” he chuckles.

To emphasise his point, Vijay pulls open a drawer from his heavy wooden desk, and produces a carefully labelled glass bottle with the triumphant air of a magician conjuring a rabbit out of his hat. In the meantime, his room is filling with people. As his wife Vijaya walks in, he points theatrically, saying, “She’s the boss.” Their daughter Vaishali follows. “She’s the big boss,” he adds. Mother and daughter roll their eyes in unison. Clearly, this is a long-running joke. Mid-conversation, two family friends wander in, and join the gathering. Pleased with his now sizeable audience, Deo unscrews the mysterious bottle, passing it around and instructing everyone to dab the oil on their wrists. The scent is earthy, seductive and alluringly familiar.

“Vettiver,” he states. That’s where it all began. “We are from a small town called Oni, in Rajapur, South Maharashtra. My father, D.V. Deo, worked in a perfumery company in the late 1930s, for which he used to travel across India. One day, he met a scientist at Banaras Hindu University, who told him essential oils had a great future. So he decided to cultivate Vettiver which then grew wild in Bharatpur, Rajasthan.” Vijaya interjects, “Locals put the roots in mud pots to scent drinking water.” It was also used for ittar. “In India, we know it as Khuskhus — it’s cultivated to make evaporative screens, which you soak in water to keep your home cool.”

D.V. Deo migrated to famously fertile Kerala to start cultivating Vettiver, going on to become one of the pioneers of the essential oil industry in India. The business grew rapidly, embracing other local ingredients, before branching into ‘spice extraction.’

Today, their trademarked spice drops — concentrated extracts of natural spices in liquid form — are used by chefs from Kochi to London. However, their most intriguing creations are the soaps, packaged in local areca palm leaf trays, and marketed to 30 countries under Vijay’s Holy Lama brand.

“By the time I joined my father’s company, they were making oils out of indigenous spices, roots and herbs. Nagarmotha (Cypriol or nut grass), which is good for your hair. Kacholam, which has medicinal value. Also turmeric, cinnamon and palmarosa.” Vijay’s first big contribution to the company began when he was barely 30, and volunteered to re-locate to Bhutan to set up an essential oil factory there.

“I moved to Mongar in Eastern Bhutan, and lived there for eight years. The land is covered in coniferous forests, so it’s difficult to cultivate anything. We decided on lemongrass, a hardy crop that can survive even in a wasteland.”

Soon they had 50,000 acres, and 2,500 families rehabilitated. “I set up a co-operative system, so locals ran the company, and we just bought their oil, blended and marketed it. The Russians bought a lot; they were making Vitamin A from it.” 

Bhutan was challenging, but fortunately, Vijay got some unexpected help. “The Lamas were so friendly. Every village had a Gompa (monastery) with Lamas, who are holy men. Through them, we earned the trust of the locals.”

Beguiled by them, Vijay undertook a 12-day journey on foot to meet a famously powerful Lama in remote Aja Ney, more than 3,500 metres above sea level. “He handed me a thangka, saying it will give me peace of mind and prosperity.”

Vijay pauses to point at a copy of the painting, hanging in his office. “The original is in my mother’s office,” Vaishali says.

Although Vijay returned to India in 1988, with the idea of forming a new company, he finally launched ‘Holy Lama Naturals’ only in 2000.

“I wanted something creative, using raw materials from our parent company.” Vaishali says, “We also wanted to focus on locally grown products. So our first choice is always ingredients from Kerala: tulsi, clove oil, ginger.”

With help from his older daughter, Gouri Kubair, currently based in London, they now make products that are exported to about 30 countries. “To begin with, 5,000 soaps a day,” says Vijay, “Which is nothing, considering big companies make soap in tonnes. But then, ours is vegan, cold-pressed and handmade by 10 women.”

Walking through the factory, Vijaya points out that they have an all-woman work force. She stops to chat with their chief chemist, who’s as charmingly giggly as she is sharply intelligent, with long curly hair and a business-like white coat. She points out their line of carefully stacked soaps, ready to be exported to London, explaining that the USP is the all-natural ingredients.

“It’s expensive. For example, 100 kilos of Vettiver yield just 1.5 kilos of oil,” she says. Fortunately, both international and domestic customers seem to be willing to pay.

“People are very conscious now about pesticides, and chemicals. They don’t want them in their cosmetic products anymore.”

As the company grows, so does their catalogue. “We have so many things I’m telling my husband to stop it now,” groans Vijaya, carefully picking her way through tubes of cream, bottles of shampoo and vials of spice drops.

There is an obvious upside though. “I get to test everything at home,” grins Vaishali, adding, “All the girls who work here do the same.”

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Printable version | Sep 23, 2021 12:23:02 PM |

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